Writer’s Block

One of the things that I hoped would come out of this blog was a memoir. I was 150 pages into one about a particular year in my life when Philip died. After that, I couldn’t write for a year. When I finally felt ready to, it was not my memoir that interested me, it was Philip’s death. So I started my blog, and it’s been three years since I did so.

The last few months have been a transition. I didn’t know what was going on. It was getting more difficult to write the blog – I didn’t know what I wanted to say. And I’d been thinking of starting the memoir but really wasn’t motivated. Since what I do is assume everything is my fault, I was sure I was just running out of things to say on the blog and too unskilled to think about starting a memoir.

Some time last year I began getting emails from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. They have an adult writing program that runs year round. And they have classes on Saturdays, which is what I’m looking for because if I have to shlep in my car to Bronxville or take the bus to NY to see what’s offered there, I don’t want to do it after a day at work. When I lived in Brooklyn it was a short subway ride into Manhattan. And if the train you were on didn’t take you exactly where you wanted to go, you got off and took another one that did. And you could do it 24/7.

Here in NJ, not so. First off, for me to even get to the train requires transportation. And since you can’t park anywhere around a train station without an annual parking permit (which, in Montclair, has a five year waiting list), you have to call a car service or get yourself Uber-ed there. The train leaves you at Penn Station, and if you’re not in reasonable walking distance from 34th street, you have to get on yet another train. Or a bus, or a taxi.

There are also buses to the city, and since they’re in walking distance from where I live, that’s how I get to Manhattan. But unless I’m leaving at some odd hour, that forty minute ride is at least doubled. After 18 years of living here, I still resent the fact that I’m at the mercy of the DeCamp Bus Schedule, which runs buses only hourly after rush hour and stops all service sometime around midnight.

I’ve looked into writing classes at The New School , 92nd Street Y and Gotham. Their adult education classes are on weeknights or weekday afternoons. Which leaves me with Sarah Lawrence – they’re just over the George Washington Bridge which means that with no traffic (if there ever is such a thing where the George Washington Bridge is concerned)  I could be there in about half an hour. While driving gives me more control over what time I come and go, I balk at going over that menacing truck-filled bridge with its upper level and lower level and exits from either side. And with eight lanes to choose from you’d better know which side the exit is on or you’re screwed, GPS or not.

There must be something deeper than that holding me back. I’ve managed to begin the memoir, but writing’s gotten terribly difficult, like it used to be before Philip died. Much as I wanted to write, I’d drag myself to my computer every time I decided to. And often I stared, or came out with stilted sentences. And I don’t think this is uncommon, not at all. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said.

Count me among the blockheads.

I’m suffering writer’s block. After Philip died I was so split open that the words spilled out on their own. There wasn’t anything to stop them and I thought that’s how it would remain. But that same vulnerability is turning on me now – I’m struggling with the memoir, struggling with the blog. But I can’t just throw my hands up in the air and cry “writer’s block!” I can’t just wait for it to pass. Because it’s not an “it,” a separate entity that’s been tossed my way. It’s an internal struggle between my ego, which has decided I’m to write every day and I’m to write in an orderly manner and I’m to sit at my desk until this memoir is finished, no matter how many years it takes, and my unconscious, which in the face of my ego’s dictatorship says fuck you.

What is that, “my unconscious?” What do I mean when I say that? Let’s call it spirit, the wellspring of creativity. This “deeper” me is overwhelmed by the personality I’ve constructed to protect it. The blog has simply been my spirit breaking free, telling my stories, trying to understand this thing called My Life. Trying, one word at a time, to live with Philip’s death. There’s a freedom with the blog – it’s mine. I own it. It gets to be what I want it to be. I work it, but it’s to my satisfaction, no one else’s. No editor cutting sentences, no teacher telling me there’s too many words there and not enough here.

But then I started to write the memoir and I froze. I worry about “setting scenes” and “showing instead of telling.” I worry about how to tell the story to the point that I no longer know how to. I push sentences around instead of having them flow. I feel like what I’m writing isn’t even good enough to be a shitty first draft.

And I’m confused. How do I help myself write? I’ve set my desk up to be where I write. I have a desk calendar where I keep track of my writing time. I count the number of hours I write weekly. I note what I want to write the next day so I don’t have to think about where to start. I’ve tried to make a routine. Write every day, even if it’s for ten minutes. Keep a process log where I write about what I’m going through as I keep working. Read a book about writing every day, read a memoir every day.

If I don’t make rules, how do I get myself to write? If I do make rules, I’m too uptight to write.

The struggle with writing has little to do with writing. It’s about unfinished business, business I thought was done once Philip died. His death so overwhelmed I couldn’t see how anything – as long as Natalie was okay – could matter enough to bother me again. But once I sat down and decided to be “serious” about writing and imposed my routine I split in two. Because “impose” is just that – something to be borne, endured, obeyed, something set by authority. And authority means my wicked witch of a mother whose domineering, sneering, angry voice still runs my life more than I care to admit.

And who I’m not yet ready to write about because I lose my footing when I try to.                                                                                                                                                     

©2016 Denise Smyth

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I Have What I Give

Tuesday morning two men were standing next to my car discussing the parking situation, and I joined in. I live in a garden apartment and you need a pass to park overnight on the street. Each apartment is allowed one pass. The complex hired a towing company that randomly comes to check cars, and your car will get towed if you don’t have a pass hanging from your rear view mirror. One of the men was complaining that he came home late one night, couldn’t find a parking spot, noticed there were cars without passes, mentioning a red Volkswagen that was there every night. He’d called the towing company, who said they were too busy to come. So he parked around the corner and wound up getting a ticket because next day it was alternate side of the street parking and he didn’t know.

“You mean we can call the towing company ourselves? “ I asked.

“Of course,” he answered.

So I could call the towing company if I notice anyone without a pass, which I never do because I’d never thought to look. I could go out late, take Zoe for a walk, check for passes and get the sons of bitches who don’t belong there towed. And I had it in for that shiny red Volkswagen – I’d been seeing that car a lot lately, parked near mine. I was going after it.

There is such satisfaction in watching somebody else get blamed and take the consequences. Because if s/he got punished, I was absolved. And that’s what we do in this world, we blame others so that we can momentarily feel better about ourselves.

The Mississippi House wants to allow prisoners to be executed by a firing squad if lethal injection is too expensive. Sounds barbaric, no? Because even if we think the death penalty is the right way to deal with the worst of the worst, we think it should be hidden. The process is medicalized to hide the violent act that it is.

But I bet if Mississippi had a firing squad and invited the public, it would be standing room only.

No, I didn’t go checking cars for passes and I didn’t call the towing company. I might feel mean but I don’t act it. But every time I saw that bright little car I wanted vengeance. Except when I saw it today. Because the culprit who was driving turned out to be a human being, one who smiled at me when she made a u-turn near where I was walking Zoe. And when I walked past her as she parked, I decided to lie.

“Excuse me,” I said when she got out of the car. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She swept the pageboy-bangs out of her eyes and said, sure. I asked her if she lived here. She said she had since February. I asked her if she had a parking pass and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I told her about the man wanting to have her car towed, and how I thought that was mean-spirited because at that moment I did think it was mean-spirited. I told her the rules, no parking without a pass between 9:00pm – 6:00am, and that if you got towed, it cost about $500 to get your car back. None of this had been explained to her. How she missed the large white signs with serious red lettering that are all over the complex and that explain all this, I do not know. She told me that last week she saw five cars get towed and she’d had no idea why. I didn’t know why her car wasn’t number six but I didn’t ask.

Me having her car towed would have been an act of quiet violence. Imagine waking up for work, not seeing your car and getting a little dizzy because you were sure where you parked it but maybe there was something you were missing. Maybe if you thought back and thought hard you could remember something that would tell you exactly where your car was.

You call the police, find out your car’s been towed because of something that management never warned you about. You have to get yourself to the towing company, pay the fine and try to come back to world but you can’t because you’re confused and angry and impotent and on top of it, you’re late for work.

Why can’t I remember the phantoms I get angry at – like other drivers – are people. Why is it always that other people are traffic? Why can’t I remember it feels better to be kind? The paradox is I have what I give. When I’m angry I’m the one who suffers. The driver in front of me who’s going 45 in a 50mph zone is oblivious to the rage I feel because I want to go faster. It doesn’t matter that it’s a speed limit, not a minimum speed. Nor does it matter that I’m rushing for rushing’s shake, not because I’m late for anything.

But when I’m kind I am soothed. Like when I stop to let someone turn in front of me because the traffic’s heavy. I see the tension leave their face as they wave in thanks. Their gratitude and relief are my own.

I miss Philip’s little kindnesses. When he was a kid he’d call because Sandy had no money to get home and no parent who would come to the rescue. Or because Mark didn’t realize he didn’t have enough money to pay for the dessert he ordered at the cafe they hung out in. I gave Philip money to take care of them because it pained me that there were kids out there whose parents were absent. But once I reminded him he was being generous with my money and like it or not, he couldn’t save the world.

I didn’t trust these kids that I didn’t know. Maybe this is how they live, taking advantage when they could. Maybe they were laughing because they got over on me and Philip. But maybe that’s just the way I look at things. Maybe Philip’s way was something for me to think about – if someone’s in need, you help. Was that it? Or did he just want them to like him? Or did he like the power of coming to the rescue? Or all of the above? And I was about to say that I’ll never know, but that’s not true. If it’s that important to me I can still talk to him about it. Not in the way I want to, but in the way that is so.

There was a price I paid to be a dependable mom, and I paid it gladly. I was the one who got called when someone needed to be picked up or dropped off. I was the one Philip called when he needed to be at the airport at 5:00 in the morning to fly to a fencing meet. I was the one who took the kids to Six Flags every year, who took 12-year-old Natalie and three of her friends to Disneyland and then to Santa Monica, the other parents asking, Are you sure you want to do this?

I was sure. It was my deep need I was trying to fill by taking care of what my children needed. It was my longing to be taken care of that made me so quick to care for them. It was my wanting to be loved that made me love them so hard.

And it was my need to find my way home that made me want to be home for them.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Writing

I thought I could write. Because I sit here and write posts that go wherever I want them to and I’ve space around them when I do it. I can’t write when I can’t breathe and I can’t breathe when there are these vicious, nagging, condescending voices in my head. As I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve kept them at bay. But I think they were just waiting.

I decided to take a local class in memoir writing. The teacher, L, came highly recommended. And so it got me started – not only the writing, but organizing notes and figuring out the order of the chapters, thinking about what this memoir is about. It is not about Philip’s death, though certainly that’s what drives it. It’s my story, it’s about me going through this rather than around it. And I have much to discover about all of it.

Here is what I’ve learned, and not from class. Writing is intensely personal. It takes a long time. If I write with the sole aim of being published my work will not ripen. I will be writing under stress. I will have the potential publisher’s voice in my head as he laughs at me, “You? Published? Ha ha ha ha. Next.”

The writing is the discovering. It’s the work. And writing a memoir is not writing a blog. There is much more to think about. Like scenes need to be set, I have to consider if each sentence is supporting what I’m trying to say, and I have to have some kind of order. This is challenging. I’m telling Philip’s story and my story and they have to flow into each other.

What I find comfort in is that this is not a race. This is unearthing. For instance, I started to write something about my mother at the wake, and I got so sick with rage and need that I had to stop. I couldn’t write the scene any more. I don’t know how to write the scene. But how much sense does that make? Writing reflects life. My feelings for my mother are twisted and are no where near the peace I need to take a step back as I write. So I turned to a different section and worked there. I’ll get back to my mother when I’m ready.

I know that this book is going to turn into what it’s going to turn into. And I will be surprised.

As for the writing class – it has helped, but it’s also thrown me. It’s a workshop. We read and we critique each other’s work. We can bring up to five pages. We can bring no pages. It’s up to us.

Me, I can’t imagine not reading aloud. I learned that I have little patience for workshops. With two or three people, maybe. Then you can slow it down and concentrate. We have as much as seven people reading and it’s just too much for me. I can’t listen to so many different writers – by the fourth one I’m losing concentration.

But the worst of it is that it’s become a drama, and much as I see it, I can’t help it. L has become my mother, sneering at me because nothing I do is good enough. (No, L. doesn’t sneer. Nor does she discourage. Really.) It’s a drama because I’ve taken a situation and written my story over it. And even though I see this, it’s affecting my writing. It’s a big deal for me to read in front of a group like that. I want to be good, I want to impress, I’m afraid I suck. That I’m boring. Right there that’s going to throw my writing off. As far as the memoir, the timing is off. If I’d started this class with a chunk of the memoir in progress, then it would have been a matter of bringing in what I’ve already written and discussing it. I haven’t written much of it – so I go home and want to write five pages and get it right and that is not writing, it is performing.

What I need is a class on craft. Not where I’m bringing my memoir in every week, but where I’m learning about structure and pacing and organization, things that confuse me and that I don’t, on my own, see when it’s not working.

Ever since this class, I sit at my computer in the grip of anxiety and I can barely write. I’m trying to describe a scene, describe a person, put in sounds and smells and give them what they I think they want to hear and I’m paralyzed. I can’t write like that. What I do – when I’m not pressuring myself because I’m in a class – is just write what I want to write and add what needs to be added after. But now I’m taking what L says in class and looking at all my sentences and not knowing how to make them better, how to be what she wants them to be.

It’s drama. And it’s all in my head.

There are things in class that have been pointed out to me that are really helpful. But in my crazy brain, I think that if I was a good writer I would not have made those mistakes and since I made those mistakes I am therefore not a good writer. It’s perfectly logical.

I’m not sure whose memoir I’m writing any more. Is it mine, or is it the one I think they want to hear?

I am nowhere near ready to workshop my work. I need to sit and write and keep it close. I need to figure out what works for me. Like no more writing on the couch. I have a writing desk. I am serious about this? I will sit at my desk and work. It feels good, because it feels like I’m taking myself seriously.

Part of the problem of the class is that it gets me thinking about the big picture – i.e., getting it to a publisher – when all I want to think about is the scene I’m writing. It’s one scene at a time and I want to spend hours – days – at these scenes. I need to – Philip has died and I am still and always will be working through this. That’s what the importance of the memoir is. I might not be able to write five pages in a week. And as I said, I don’t have to, but I will like a failure if I don’t. Five pages is a lot of pages to get right because it takes me a long time to get it right. And Philip is in every part of it, whether I say his name or not.

Right now, I’m writing about his childhood. I have some of his pictures around me, from when he was a baby through 18. I went on Google maps and pulled up the house we used to live in. I am immersed in the past and it’s starting to shake me. I think what helps is that I go to work and it’s been busy and funny. So much laughing there – so I’ve no time think about anything. Then I go home and turn on my computer and there it is. I’m not complaining. I chose to write this, that means I experience it. But I’m so very sad – he was here, wasn’t he? I have the pictures to prove it. It’s just seeing that childish innocence, then seeing him in a coffin…how do I find the words for that? By sitting and taking the time to write it. However long it takes.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

The First Time

I miss Philip. I miss talking to him. I miss his adoration, even though I feel his love. But I’m human and I miss the human things. Like taking care of him if he wasn’t feeling well. Or telling him secrets because I knew I could trust him and that he was paying attention. And calling him first when something exciting happened. Like the day I went on my first ride at Six Flags.

It was a hot summer day in July and I was at Six Flags in New Jersey, home of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in North America.  I came here every year with Natalie and her best friends, Rebecca and Eve. Every year I trailed behind them, carrying assorted bags, cell phones and iPods for them so they could go on the rides while I sat on the bench, waiting. I didn’t go on rides. They scared me. But that year was different. That was the year I’d turned fifty, the year I’d gotten a job after spending 17 years at home with Philip and Natalie. I needed a reason to get of bed that didn’t include driving them somewhere or making three dinners because Philip wanted meat and Natalie didn’t and Phil couldn’t eat black pepper without upsetting his stomach. My therapist said I needed a job for structure. She worried that I was being sucked too far into a hole and I was afraid that the hand she offered to help me out of it was slipping beyond my reach.

So I found a part-time job that quickly turned full-time, and something happened along the way. I replaced the khaki skirts and sensible shoes my husband suggested I buy with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled ankle boots. I started asking my family to take out the garbage and empty the dishwasher and seethed in fury when they didn’t. I’d trained them well – for years I’d done everything so the fact of my job didn’t suggest to them anything at home needed to change. And much as I was finding less need to sleep away the hours that had felt too long and hard to be awake for, I was still depressed – I was dull, I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a degree, didn’t have a purpose.

But that day life was pulsing in the crowds, the colors, the lights, the blaring loudspeakers and the roaring roller coasters. Overweight people with super-sized drinks held tightly to children with sticky cotton-candy fingers. Giggling teenagers brushed past me, rushing to the next ride. Even here I was on the wrong side of excitement. There was something I wanted, something I needed to know, something in the crowds I normally disdain and the rides I was terrified to go on. I was pulled in their direction and resisting like hell. I thought I was different. I didn’t eat fast food, meat or dessert. I didn’t drink soda, I wasn’t afraid of the dark or of germs and I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom. I wasn’t afraid of cancer and I wasn’t afraid of death. Death sounded easy, like going to sleep and not having to wake up facing long, dull days when I went out only to buy groceries or pick up my kids from school.

I was restless and sticky as I prowled around the amusement park with the girls. We stopped in front of a purple behemoth of a ride that rose fourteen stories high with a track that twisted and corkscrewed around while riders screamed over its roar. That’s Medusa, Rebecca told me, and asked if I’d go on with them. They knew better than to ask me to ride anything more exotic than the gorgeously painted horses on the carousel, but all morning Rebecca’s been bugging me to at least try and I was secretly hoping she’d convince me.

“I can’t,” I said.

“C’mon,” Rebecca said, giving me a nudge. “Of course you can.”

“No. I can’t. Forget it.”

“You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Just do it. We’ll be right there with you.”

“But…”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she cut in. She eyed me carefully, then shrugged. “If you really don’t want to…” She turned back to Natalie. My daughter hadn’t said a word, sure that her mother would never go on this ride and wondering why Rebecca would even bother to ask.

I followed them onto the line, where they turned to me.

“You coming?” Rebecca asked.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I’m cracking up here.  I’m tired of sitting on the bench, tired of waiting, tired of being afraid and I don’t have the nerve to do anything about it. If I stand here a while, maybe I’ll find it.

“No. But I’ll just stay with you for now.”

Staying meant walking with the girls up the staircase that ended at the platform where Medusa pulled in. I was filled with dread. I didn’t know if I was more afraid of getting on the ride or watching it leave without me. If I didn’t get on that damn ride I’d spend the rest of the day withering under the weight of yet another choice made by ambivalence. But that was the dismal habit of my life and I didn’t think I could break it.

I panicked as what I thought was a distant rumbling turned into a ground-shaking roar. Medusa pulled in and screeched to a stop in front of us. I watched people unbuckling seatbelts and unstrapping harnesses, looking for something in their faces that would tell me what to do. A lifetime of wanting someone to tell me how to live still hadn’t taught me that whatever answer I got wasn’t the one I wanted. I could have called the Almighty down and it still wouldn’t have helped. He’d already given me life; He just forgot to include the operating manual.

“Mom!”

“What?” I ask, startled out of my reverie.

“We’re going on. What are you doing?”

I looked over at the ride in desperation. That’s when I saw him. The chubby little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight, being helped off the ride by his father. He jumped out of his seat as soon as he was able, happily slipped his hand into his father’s and vanished down the staircase on his way, I was sure, to his next thrill. He was living life. He was awake.

I turned back to the girls.

“I’m coming.”

Yes!” screeched Rebecca.

“Are you sure?” asked Natalie anxiously. And with a twist that was only the beginning of what would become an increasingly tense dynamic between us, she became the worrying mother, trying to protect me from making choices she didn’t understand to do things she’d never seen me do.

Once we were seated and strapped in, Medusa came alive with a clang as the metal floor dropped out from beneath us. I tensed as I looked down to where the ground used to be and saw nothing but narrow track. Then with a jerk, we lurched forward. My stomach lept up to my throat.  Medusa’s padded torso brace held my upper body firmly, while my legs dangled loose and dangerously free. We swung around the first curve and headed up the incline. The world was turning white hot as we inched up the slope until the sickening moment when we paused at the apex. Terrified, I did the only thing I could: I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let Medusa take me where she would.

We were off. Straight down we plummeted, wind batting back my hair, my breasts pressed firmly against the brace. The momentum forced my legs apart with a freedom I’d yet to experience anywhere else. Up we went to loop around, then around again, my back arching to resist the plunge, then slamming against the seat when we raced back up, breathless as we spun upside down, elated as we rose once again. Inside the roaring, I was weightless, flying, careening side to side, tossed upside down, thrust forward yet again, until way too soon we jerked to a stop, then cautiously slid forward to the platform, where we exited on one side so those waiting on line could enter from the other.

Back on the ground, the air was pungent with barbecue and buttered popcorn. In the midst of the crowd I looked up. Kingda Ka rose forty-five stories into the dazzling blue sky before me. Natalie followed my gaze

.“Mom, no. No.

I didn’t argue. She’d gone on that ride before, but she was frightened; I saw it in the intensity of her big green eyes, heard it in the urgency of her voice. She wasn’t quite sure what happened but she had enough for one day. For the moment, I agreed.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Love and Death

Cindy and I spent New Year’s Eve at her house, watching almost all of season two of “Transparent.” At 11:53 she put the TV on one of the channels that was broadcasting the ball dropping from Times Square. We were treated to the sight of – hundreds? thousands? – of people crushed together in the closed-to-traffic streets, some of whom had gotten there at 8am that morning. On top of one of the buildings in the area, the host of a news show was bleating excitedly about the ringing in of the new year. He was accompanied by several people I assume were in the entertainment industry, none of whom I recognized. Once the ball dropped, the host asked them about their take on things. Some of the responses were, “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” “It’s surreal,” “Um, I don’t know what to say,” “Unbelievable,” and “I really don’t know what to say.” The most thoughtful of them added, “It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean!”

I will never understand what drives people to stand outside in the cold for hours and hours to watch 30 seconds of a ball dropping. I will never understand why anyone would solicit opinions from a bunch of entertainers who can’t speak unless they’re scripted, and why anyone else would care what they have to say. I don’t even understand the big deal about one year passing into another, although it seems to make a great excuse for excessive drinking.

This was a bad year, a coworker said. I hope the new one will be better.

Philip died in 2012. But I do not consider that a “bad year.” The second worst thing that could happen, happened (because I have a daughter, and losing both my children is the first worst). I do count time in that way – Philip will be dead four years next month. But I can’t label swatches of time. That’s a way of holding on to pain. Even when reminiscing about “good times,” the implication is that the current time is worse and so that is also holding on to pain.

There is a freedom in not reminiscing. In not projecting. In not thinking and dwelling about a past that can’t be changed or a future that never comes. I remember Thanksgiving at Cindy’s – I had fun. I didn’t think of Philip during dinner, dessert or the endless rounds of Catchphrase played afterward. Later that night, I did. There was a flicker of guilt until I also remembered that’s what Philip wants. I know that because in life he wanted me happy and his death doesn’t change that.

When Philip first died, Phil said to me Philip would want me to be happy. “How do you know what he wants?” I snapped. “Maybe he’s lonely – maybe he’d rather me be with him.” I understand things differently now. To” be with him” has nothing to do with my body or his body. He’s with me always, teaching me love and peace even as at times his death renders me breathless. It’s the way I love him that doesn’t allow me to experience his death the way I first did – as terrifying nothingness, as proof of random viciousness and meaninglessness. Not so – death is not a punishment nor an attack. It is a fact and I cannot interpret it only as grievous without also making my love for him and joy in him meaningless. Because his death takes away neither of those things. What then is death, and what is love?

I can’t pretend to answer either of those questions but I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t,” Philip told me. Because to do otherwise is to give it a reality it doesn’t have. The shock of it when we lose a loved one can’t be denied. But the love that remains long after the body has disappeared also can’t be denied and is as real and palpable as ever. Philip continues to reach out to me through both sight and vision – the difference being sight is what my eyes see, and vision what my heart knows.

As far as love – I’m starting to think that love in this world is impossible without ambivalence, and so, then, is it really love? is what we call love merely believing that the desired other is someone who can meet our needs? How else to explain the deep and unending difficulties we have in maintaining relationships? To explain how we meet that other, pledge to spend our lives with that other, only to be disappointed and disenchanted as the years roll by? How, exactly, does that “love” we feel for that other turn into hatred, as it so often does? Was it, then, really love?

I question whether I have ever truly loved anyone. The closest I have come is what I feel for my children, particularly Philip. And I do not mean that I “love” Philip more than Natalie. It’s not only about what I feel for, but what I feel from, and in feeling Philip’s love I’m learning about my own ability to love. Philip’s loss of body is also loss of ego. I define ego as that part of us which is grasping, clinging, angry, greedy, fearful – that which interferes with the peace that lies deep and often buried, interferes with our ability to love. Philip’s is a voice of patience and kindness. Mine is not, at least not as much as I’d like it to be. My experience of Philip shows me how I fall short with Natalie. Egos colliding is not a pretty sight. It is only when I can let Natalie be, when I’m not pissed because she left a dish in the sink or shut herself in her room for too long, that I experience something akin to the peace of love.

Relationships are not here to make us happy. They are here to teach. And if we learn our lessons well, happiness is certainly possible. I am not happy that Philip’s died, but I recognize our relationship is about something beyond what I thought it was when he was alive. I have chosen to try to learn what he’s teaching me instead of making my life a bloody hell because of his death. Which isn’t to say I don’t wish he was here – I miss his touch, his voice, his laugh. But I do not miss his comfort because I still have it.  “Mom, you have to find the joy,” he said. He’s trying so hard to help me – I owe it to him to try as hard as well.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Things of the Spirit

You’d think that Philip’s death would make the holidays miserable for me – a reminder that my family is no longer intact, is not the way I ever thought it would be. That the unthinkable has happened. But the light of Christmas is as much a part of me as grief is. So I go back and forth between the warmth I feel this time of year and the chill I get when it hits me again that Philip has died. It strangles me sometimes – looking at his picture, knowing he was here, knowing he isn’t coming home. Knowing I can’t do anything about it, that talking about it can make me feel even more helpless because it changes nothing. Things of the spirit need come first, I remind myself. But why is the path to peace so hard?

When I was a kid we had big Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve was the best. We gathered at my grandmother’s house, my mother’s mother. My mom had six brothers, and some-but-not-all had kids. Plus my uncles had lots of friends who’d stop by. There was an uncle who’d dress up as Santa, me always guessing which uncle it was, proud of myself for recognizing he wasn’t the real Santa. The real Santa was too busy running around in his sleigh to stop and visit grandma’s.

I love giving gifts. I’ve baked dozens of cookies, an apple cake, a caramel cake and chocolate mousse. Christmas Eve I went to my brother’s house with Natalie. Christmas Day Natalie will be with her dad, and I’ll be at Cindy’s where we’ll eat leftovers and watch movies. I don’t have a lot of friends, but I am blessed with the ones I do have.

I prefer fall and winter, even though I get cold easily. At work, where my co-workers think it’s too warm inside and so open windows, I wait for them to go to the bathroom and quickly close them. I have coats for varying temperatures and have finally figured out that scarves and hats actually work. Still, I adore winter, though I balk when it gets here because that means it’s leaving. Its coming means the days begin to get longer. Dusk at 4:30 is still too late for me. I want the short days, I want an excuse to stay inside. Winter is cozy and comforting. As are evening and night.

Philip was born in the winter, and he died in the winter – still, that’s when I feel safe. His birthday brings me close to him, and the day he died, closer still. Closer because his death was an explosion, making him larger than life. It took him away, yet I feel him near. How to explain that? The only thing to say is love. Because no matter what’s gone, our love remains. My time with him can’t be taken away and even though he’s died, he hasn’t become what I feared – only a memory. Memories are static, and what I have with Philip feels much too alive. For that I am grateful. I have suffered grievously for having lost him. Now I am grateful for having had him, for what I still have with him.

And for knowing that whatever I suffer I do not suffer alone. Who is simply “happy” to be alive? Who doesn’t feel the terrible sadness conjured up by a supposed season of peace? A sadness more profound because, as a child, in my innocence, I believed there was a special kind of magic around Christmas. The Santa Claus dreams of then can form a cruel contrast  to the reality of now. Those childhood years may have been short, but the impression they left is endless.

Where is hope, then? Not in things of this world, for sure. For this is a world we come to in order to die. Hope lies not in imagining the world as I think it ought to be. It lies in my ability to see it differently, an ability that Philip’s death has honed. That everything dies is no longer an abstraction but a hard truth. I can hold my breath and curse God if I choose. Or not. I choose not. What has God to do with this world? If I believed in the vengeful God of my childhood, I’d say everything. But even as a kid that God made no sense to me. I never understood being told that “God loved us so much he sacrificed his only son for us.” What does that even mean? How do I benefit from God’s dead son? And how could I love a father who had one special son who he then killed for my sake? Why did one son get to be special, and not another? And if He killed his special son, when was He coming for me?

The first time I heard, “Man made God in his own image” I knew I’d learned something profound. And freeing. The vengeful, tyrannical God of the Old Testament was a choice. Which didn’t mean I invented a kinder one or that I chose to be an atheist. I’d mixed up God with my parents too deeply to switch to a godhead more friendly, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to be certain there was nothing beyond what my senses showed me. There was too much mystery to life for me to presume I had an answer.

I saw the absence of God in the world as proof that He didn’t exist. The problem right there presents itself as one of language – “He” didn’t exist, as if God had a sex, a gender, a form, was a being the way I was a being, only mightier. Then one day I read, “We say, ‘God is’ and we cease to speak,” and I thought that was as close to an answer as I’d ever get. Because when it comes to things of the spirit, it’s the open-ended answers that come closest to the truth.

It might sound odd for me to be loving Christmas given all I’ve just said. I don’t see it that way. I see Jesus the way I see Bhudda – a being more enlightened than the rest of us who walked this world for a while. It’s the religion man made around him that I object to. The seed of Christmas is love and now’s when I have a chance to express it in ways that I don’t during the rest of the year. It cuts both ways, this love, filling me up for what I have while making me keenly aware of what I’ve lost. When I say, “Merry Christmas” what I mean is much love to you and yours. And that’s what I wish for all of you – love, and whatever peace you can find.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Was I?

No one trains to be a parent. And I didn’t read any books about someone’s version of how to do it, their methods, their advice. I’d figure it out on my own. Like when Natalie was a baby and cried and cried and cried; I’d heard of the “Ferber Method,” where Dr. Ferber thought babies needed to be trained to fall asleep, so let ‘em cry.  As opposed to assuming they’re crying because they need something and maybe if you hold them, they’ll feel safe enough to sleep.

However.

Natalie would wake up at all hours of the night to nurse. By the time she was five months old, I was exhausted. One night when she woke up at midnight, I decided that’s it. I’d let her cry. Screw it. I needed to sleep. Like I could sleep during the three hours she screamed bloody hell. Three hours before I ran to pick her up and nurse her. She latched on between the shaking and muffled sobbing; she sucked my breast like it was the breath she was breathing. By that point my milk was irrelevant. She was hungry for me. For what, I asked myself, for what? For what did I do that? I don’t think babies (or children, or adults) should be left to cry – it’s not natural. If they’re crying, they need something. Natalie’s needs were my needs. By the time I picked her up,  I craved her as much as she craved me. Bottom line – I wanted babies, and babies need attention. I wanted to nurse them, and that meant extra attention. And when I gave my kids what I knew they needed, we all felt better.

But when my kids got older, my instincts got confused. There were things I wasn’t clear about, things I wasn’t sure how to handle. My mind was telling me to interfere with this or try to stop that, but my heart didn’t agree and it’s like I was a trio – mind, heart and the one who had to decide between. Most of the time I went with my heart because it felt right, but maybe I was too scared to choose any other way, scared that Philip would be mad at me. So was I, then, looking out for him?

When Philip was 16, he wanted to go to an all day concert some hours away. Phil and I weren’t crazy about some of the kids he was hanging out with at the time. He’d gone the year before, but it was with a kid we trusted and his dad, who’d agreed to take them and spend the day. Not so this year. Someone was driving there, someone driving back. The details were vague, and Phil and I knew there’d be drinking and drugs at this thing. Phil refused to let him go, and Philip was furious. I’d never seen him so angry – and I knew that if it was me alone, I would have let him go. I stood there wide-eyed and twisted while Phil and Philip fought it out. I don’t know how Phil did it – I do not know how he was able to hold his ground. He was protecting his son. All I was was terrified, and that is what I’m talking about – was I looking out for him, or protecting myself from his anger?

Phil and I found out Philip had been smoking pot when he was sixteen. We took him straight to a drug counselor, which might sound dramatic except that I’m an addict and thought I could fix him before he turned into one. She sat with the three of us, then with Philip alone. Afterward she said, “This isn’t a kid with a problem.”  And at that point, he wasn’t. We bought a couple of drug tests, tested him a few months later, he was clean.

Philip was a kid with his feet in two worlds and he died with his foot in the wrong one. This is something I’ve been deeply ashamed about. Phil and I are decent people. We lived in good neighborhood, were surrounded by families whose kids were smart and active. Philip was intelligent, kind and sensitive. He got into one fight in his entire school career, and that was because he was picked on. In high school, he joined the fencing team and began to hang around with good kids, kids interested in school and their future. So how did he also wind up hanging around with kids who were more interested in drugs than in school? And while he wasn’t acting badly, he wasn’t working as hard as he could in school, only wore t-shirts that were black, and refused any shoes except his black high-top Converse.

Was there something I was supposed to do about that? Was I – really – looking out for him?

When my kids were growing up, there was a family who lived across the street from us for a while. The dad was a doctor, and I’m not sure what the mom was, but she worked full time. They had two kids – Ethan, who was a year older than Philip, and Julie, who was a few years older than him. Ethan was polite. He was allowed to play with Philip, but he wasn’t allowed to come into our house. It wasn’t personal – it was just a rule, and I figured that the parents wanted to be able to see exactly what he was doing. So he’d ring the bell and wait outside for Philip to come and play. Once I asked the mom if Julie could baby-sit for my kids. No, she said; she’s not allowed to work, she has to pay attention to her homework.

I was impressed. It seemed to me that these people knew exactly who they were and what they expected from their children. It also seemed to me that they were going to get it. I took clarity for certitude. Because I was so often unclear – how was I supposed to force Philip to use the brains he had when he slacked off? How was I supposed to force him to hang around  with kids I thought would be better for him? I couldn’t lock him in his room, I couldn’t forbid him to stay away from people. I blamed myself for the choices he made that were poor. Of course, I took no credit for all the good in him.

This is part of the ongoing conversation I have with myself about Philip’s death. Fortunately, it’s a small part. Regret and guilt are inevitable, but they are as much a part of the story as I make them be. And I do not much make them be. Philip has died but I have not. Nor has Natalie. And “died” doesn’t mean gone. It means change, change I don’t want but change that is so. I can ask myself if I was looking out for Philip, and the way I answer that is the way I feel about it all. If I want to wallow, I will answer no. If I want to find peace, I will say of course I was. He is my son and my love and so yes – of course I was.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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